Mar 29, 2017

Classics of Science Fiction

Happiness is a Hard Master

by Inci German

Talking about dystopias, it has always bothered me that Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World is mentioned in the same breath with books such as 1984, We, Fahrenheit 451 or R.U.R.
First off; I don’t want to undermine these other works. On the contrary,classical dystopian fiction is the main reason I started reading speculative fiction and no matter how old-fashioned, drenched or dated some may have come to be perceived nowadays, dystopian ideas and universes continue to fascinate me in full force.
It’s just that in my opinion Huxley goes beyond depicting a mere dystopia; there’s a very witty twist in Brave New World that distinguishes it from anything else I have read to date. I couldn’t put my finger on what it was, until I read Adam Roberts’ lines in his History of Science Fiction: “The greatest achievement of Brave New World is not portraying dystopia; it is portraying dystopia as utopia.” and I’ll take it from there.

When in the mid 90’s Therapy? sang “Happy people have no stories” they certainly weren’t thinking about Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. This is the story of happy people. And ironically, it is a sad one.

Set in 632 After Ford (Henry Ford’s Model T was the first car to be mass produced), Brave New World depicts a society based on “COMMUNITY, IDENTITY, STABILITY”. People are genetically engineered, graded into castes and hatched instead of born. After their hatching they continue to be conditioned to be obedient, crafty consumers and sexual promiscuous citizens of the World State. They live healthy, happy lives. And if they happen to have a bad day there is always soma, the happy drug. This happiness and satisfaction is the basis for social stability. Suppression in the conventional sense is completely lacking here, since for the majority of people it is only logical that happiness is a good thing we all should aspire to. And so thought utopian writers until Huxley, who suggested “Well, maybe it’s not…” and confronted these two views.

The most effective way of portraying such a contrast is of course by throwing an outside element into the picture. Huxley does this with not one, but two successive protagonists. John Savage, the son of a “civilized” woman forgotten in a reservation area and the widely accepted protagonist of Brave New World, doesn’t actually appear until the second half of the book. Until that point we’re with Bernhard Marx; a malformed Alpha Plus who doesn’t fit in because of his appearance.

That outsider thing…

It has always struck me as odd that dystopian protagonists reach an awareness of their surroundings out of the blue. Surely there’s a straw to break the camel’s back, a triggering element that turns their apparently long accumulated depression into a psychotic breakdown, leading the hero to look for ways of breaking free, of revolting. But we’re not given more background information as to why this happens to this particular person. Huxley, on the other hand, manages to give a detailed psychological background analysis in very limited space (my copy published by Triad Grafton Books consists of 206 pages and John Savage doesn’t enter the stage until page 98). In his hands it becomes perfectly reasonable why, we observe the barrel filling and filling and filling and finally overflowing. And a central notion of that barrel filling is the “outsider”, the one who doesn’t fit in, who is unsettled and can better observe and point out the troubles in a system that has no place for them. He doesn’t have that bond with community, in consequence doesn’t develop a “proper” sense of identity and in consequence again doesn’t grow to be stable since he lacks the fundaments required to survive in such community. Even though the Savage plays the lead in this story, there are actually more underdogs in the brave new world who represent different facets of social exclusion.

As I mentioned above, the reader starts with the point of view of Bernhard Marx, who, due to a flaw in his “production” process, is misshaped; he has the physique of a lower caste man but the mind of an alpha. This makes him less desirable for women in general and that seems to be his main motivation; to “have” more women. Unlike the synthetic happiness that his fellow humans are constantly experiencing, Marx is quite depressed and refuses to take soma in order to deal with his true feelings. Even though he becomes more cowardly and even mean-spirited towards the end of the book, that’s more than the majority of the other characters can claim. Then there’s Helmholtz Watson. There’s no apparent reason for him to become outcast other than being a smart, thinking, strong individual.

There’s no question that John Savage was a train wreck from the start. Born in a reservation outside “civilization” to a mother who isn’t only a stranger but whose upbringing and values are in sharp contrast with those of the community he grows up in, John is torn between the desire to belong to the savage community and his idealized and unrealistic longing for his mother’s home. He’s bound to be a misfit no matter where he chooses to live and it’s clear that he just can’t win no matter what. Waking up one morning he comes to realize the woman he’s been idolizing isn’t at all what he thought she would be, then to witness the death of his ostracized mother, then to start a rebellion against the system by destroying big quantities of the drug it depends on and finally have a monumental conversation with Mustapha Mond, one of the ten world controllers, who breaks your spirits… And you thought YOU had a bad day? Think again. That much would even make Buddha go berserk! As he gradually realizes that the picture of that romantic “other place” that got him through tough times, through years of bullying and exclusion doesn’t exist, his masochistic, almost radical side (which actually roots in the “savage” society he grows up in: in the very first scene we meet John he expresses his regret that he’s not in the place of a boy being whipped in a ceremony) takes overhand, leading to an orgy of self inflicted pain and ending inevitably in death.

The discussion between The Savage and Mustapha Mond constitutes one of the turning points of the book. Mond’s arguments are fire resistant and water proof and his society model stands as solid as a rock. That man is convincing, I tell you! Brave New World is generally criticized because it allegedly suggests the Savage’s values (high arts and self reflection) are “better” than Mustapha’s (mass culture and quick consumption), but I see that as a misinterpretation. Even though it isn’t necessarily clear throughout the story, the conversation scene and John’s increasingly self destructive behavior illustrate that Huxley wants his readers to be confronted with the dilemma that none is better whatsoever. There is no free will in this world; it’s the conditioning tape against Shakespeare – we are what we’ve been fed.
When I first read Brave New World, this impossibility of being one’s own had such an impact on me that after finishing the book I immediately threw up, became sick and stayed miserably in bed for three days. Having also grown up with a mother who’s a stranger to the place I grew up in, I identified with the Savage very much and felt his struggle; the impossibility of sanity which eventually drives him to suicide just devastated me. Back then I thought we’re all blank CD’s that are to be overwritten by our experiences, the books we’ve read etc. But what about the ones we would have chosen, had we known of their existence? Are my choices really my choices? Am I just an opportunist who only can choose the best for the moment, choose out of World State conditioning or Shakespeare? I guess there’s no definite answer to those questions and I bet there are thousands of philosophers pondering upon that. And Huxley doesn’t claim to give answers either.

I for my turn, later made peace with this book. I tend to read forewords after having read the books themselves and so I did with Huxley’s own foreword. You can imagine my relief and delight when I read that if he could write the book again, he would give John a third alternative; a place within the borders of the Reservation with decentralist economics and Kropotkinesque, co-operative politics. Although it would have been fun to read that utopian version and I bet that that too would have been a great book, for me Brave New World is mind blowing just the way it is, with its bitter sweet aftertaste it has given me years ago.

And yeah, “Stories” will be stuck in my head the whole night, great…

1 comment:

  1. "We were keeping our eye on 1984. When the year came and the prophecy didn't, thoughtful Americans sang softly in praise of themselves. The roots of liberal democracy had held. Wherever else the terror had happened, we, at least, had not been visited by Orwellian nightmares. But we had forgotten that alongside Orwell's dark vision, there was another—slightly older, slightly less well known, equally chilling: Aldous Huxley's Brave New World. Contrary to common belief even among the educated, Huxley and Orwell did not prophesy the same thing. Orwell warns that we will be overcome by an externally imposed oppression. But in Huxley's vision, no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity and history. As he saw it, people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their
    capacities to think." - "Amusing Ourselves to Death", Neal Postman, 1985

    I first read "Brave New World" when I was 17; it was part of my effort to read all the classics that I had missed due to my unusual education. My total time in an American high school numbered in months. So, I read "1984" and "Brave New World" back-to-back. And it fixed my ideas about these two books. For me, these texts are all about detailing methods of control: how a state can take over the lives of its citizens to make them instruments in its own designs. In "1984" we see the methods of control through total surveillance, manipulation of negative emotions, hijacking the human sexual drives to the will of the state, constant fear, and complete emotional isolation. The government of "Brave New World" have the same ends, by use very different means. It's briefly mentioned by Mustafa Mond that the history of the World State was pretty dark; that at one time the World State behaved similiarly to Oceania, but that they then figured it out and changed methods. And the method is pleasure. Pleasure can be just as debilitating as pain. Both settings are trapped in an eternal present; evolution has been frozen by completely control of the populace.

    But I love how Huxely shows us that pleasure can also be weaponized. And he makes some great arguments on the subject. When Neal Postman took up the torch in 1985 to show us that "Brave New World" was the future that we should be worried about more than "1984". Neal Postman's book still stays relevant today, and I would recommend it to any one who has an interest in media and it's effect on society.

    I also know what you mean by the theme of "Outsider". My father was a Native American, born and raised on the reservation, and he always felt at odds with American society. He was constantly at war with the "white man" and it splashed over into my life and thinking. I also grew up as an "Outsider" and have always identified with the same kind of characters in novels.

    NB: you can find a complete copy of "Amusing Ourselves to Death" from 2005 with Preface from Andrew Postman here as a PDF: